The most prominent stereotype associated with professional wrestling is that of two muscular and nearly naked men doused in oil rolling around on a canvas in front of a roaring crowd of rednecks. There’s a lot wrong with that statement, not the least of which is the fact that it leaves out female wrestlers entirely. However, just as many stereotypes do actually have some initial basis in truth, it is unfortunately understandable that women’s wrestling has been largely ignored by those with only the slightest idea of what professional wrestling is. The history of women in wrestling has had its ups and downs for decades now, never quite reaching the heights of their male peers. It’s just never been held in the same regard. However, this is about to change…
Going back several decades, women’s wrestling was never quite prominent. There are certainly legends from the past, such as the Fabulous Moolah, who was a pioneer in her own right, helping overturn a ban on women’s wrestling in New York and then going on to become the first woman to wrestle at the historic MadisonSquareGarden in 1972. In the world of wrestling, MGS is a highly respected and integral part of wrestling history, so that significance should not be downplayed. However, women’s wrestling at the time never managed to get even close to the same stature as men’s wrestling, ultimately suffering a downturn.
In the late 1990s, professional wrestling underwent a change going from something resembling a Saturday morning cartoon to an episode of Jerry Springer. The Attitude Era, as it came to be known, marked a drastic shift towards more adult content, frequently skirting the line of what was appropriate to show on American television. This wasn’t limited to just violence and cursing, but also came about in the form of more screen time for women. However, despite there being a few incredibly talented women wrestlers there at the time, much of that era is remembered for how much it appealed to teenage boys. It was something of a mess, really. On the one hand, you had Chyna, who became the first (and only) woman ever to win the WWE Intercontinental Championship, a belt that is considered second only to the WWE Heavyweight Championship. On the other hand, you had matches such as the bra and panties match, where the objective of the match was to tear off your opponent’s clothes until they were down to their underwear. On occasion, men did wrestle in similar matches, but it was meant to be an act of humiliation, and the top wrestlers never got even close to having to undergo something like that. For women, it was just part of the job.
In the decade to follow, this continued to be the trend, with highly talented wrestlers such as Trish Stratus and Lita contending for the spotlight with women who were mostly there just to look good on camera. After Trish and Lita retired in 2006, the prospects of women’s wrestling continued to grow dim with only a few exceptions. In 2013, WWE launched a new reality TV show on the E! network called Total Divas, which again led to a renewed focus on women though much less so in the context of wrestling. Women’s matches continued to be relegated to the status of bathroom breaks, a term that several women wrestlers have openly referred to in other media. Most indicative of this was the replacement of the WWE Women’s Championship title with the WWE Divas’ Championship. What once was a legit looking championship belt now essentially had a pink butterfly on it.
Then a funny thing started happening. A few years after the launch of its developmental brand, NXT, WWE started noticing that the brand was gaining in popularity. Overseen by a semi-retired wrestler by the name of Triple H, the brand’s focus on wrestling was in stark contrast to the WWE’s focus on “sports entertainment.” Suddenly, huge names on the independent scene started heading to NXT, leading it to become a haven for those wrestling fans who wanted to watch actual wrestling. NXT was the smaller brand, designed for wrestlers to hone their skills before heading to the massively larger crowds of WWE shows. A byproduct of this lack of corporate interference was a new focus on women’s wrestling.
Arguably, it started in 2013 with the first woman ever to be crowned the newly created NXT Women’s Champion (notice the name), Paige. This was a woman who grew up in the wrestling business, as both of her parents as well as her older brothers are all wrestlers. In fact, Paige’s mother was still wrestling while pregnant with Paige (until she found out she was pregnant, of course), so there’s a long-running joke that Paige has been at home in a wrestling ring even before she was born. When Paige moved up to the main WWE roster, she brought with her a more physical style of wrestling that hadn’t been seen much in the WWE Divas’ division. Her moves looked like they hurt, lending her a sense of credibility that had sorely been lacking in women’s wrestling.
Paige, the first ever NXT Women’s Champion (left) and Charlotte, the last Divas’ Champion (right)
After Paige left NXT, the stage was clear for four other women to emerge as the defacto standard bearers of women’s wrestling. It is these women that I want to focus on the most because it is through their hard-work that women’s wrestling has become more legitimate than it’s ever been. Individually, these women are Charlotte, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Bayley. Collectively, they are known as The Four Horsewomen of wrestling.
To understand the significance of that title, you have to know that one of the most legendary factions in the history of wrestling is The Four Horsemen. Led by one of the most influential wrestlers of all time, Ric Flair, the group was recognized as a symbol of wrestling excellence, featuring some of the best wrestlers in the world with few exceptions (*ahem* Steve “Mongo” McMichael) in its various incarnations. The Four Horsemen are quite possibly the most prestigious group of all time, and their four fingered salute continues to be associated with the best of wrestling. With this in mind, it is incredibly indicative of the respect those four women have that they are able to associate themselves with a group as legendary as The Four Horsemen and be able to do so credibly.
Charlotte already has ties to The Four Horsemen, because she is actually the daughter of Ric Flair, the leader of the original faction. As the daughter of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Charlotte has a lot to draw from, but she manages to not only take a lot of the great attributes of her father, such as his cockiness, she is also able to add her own spin to things and can do moves that her father wouldn’t have even dreamed of. She also stands out among other women wrestlers because of her appearance; she’s tall and muscularly very well defined. She is believable as a physical force, and that’s something that has been lacking for so long in women’s wrestling.
On the subject of believability, Bayley is someone that the audience can truly believe in. It’s clear that she’s been a wrestling fan her whole life. There’s even a clip of her reading an essay she wrote in high school about wanting to become a wrestler. As she fights back tears of joy, she makes the funny remark that just about every essay she wrote had something to do with wrestling. She is so passionate about the business, which is something that you can find burning inside all of these women.
In days past, many women who would become “WWE Divas,” had little to no experience with wrestling before they were signed. At best, many of them had a passing interest as kids, but a lot of them just tended to see it as an opportunity to get on TV. It IS an entertainment business, after all. However, life-long passion for the business is something that comes across incredibly clearly in wrestling, and it’s certainly not something that can be faked. Fans gravitate towards these wrestlers, because they’re like them; they’re fans. Paige started wrestling when she was just 13 years old. Charlotte grew up in the business. Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Bayley all honed their craft on the independent circuit before making the transition to WWE and NXT. They’ve paid their dues, and worked hard to become wrestlers. And that’s the main thing that sets them apart: their goal was to become wrestlers, not sports entertainers or divas.
These women have taken a division that used to be the bathroom break division into something that often steals the show. That was unheard of just a couple of years ago. Yet on August 22nd, 2015, at an NXT special event called TakeOver: Brooklyn, Bayley and Sasha Banks had a show-stealing match for the Women’s Championship. It’s not just that the match itself was amazing on a technical level, with both women pulling off some flashy and legitimately dangerous looking spots. What made the match so special was that it mattered. Bayley, the challenger, had been attempting to claim the NXT Women’s Championship for months on end, coming incredibly close on many occasions but never quite making it. Sasha Banks, the cocky champ, routinely rubbed this fact in Bayley’s face. The crowd wanted, nay, needed Bayley to finally win. During the match itself, they told a continuously evolving story, taking their time, playing-up injuries, and keeping the audience guessing throughout. When Bayley finally managed to surprise Sasha with a high-risk move off the top corner followed up by her finisher, the post-match celebration was electric. People were genuinely happy to see that Bayley had finally accomplished her goal after months of working for it. Charlotte and Becky Lynch joined in on the celebration, running down to the ring to hug Bayley, showing happiness that couldn’t be faked. Even Sasha Banks momentarily put her character aside to congratulate Bayley, the four of them memorably standing side-by-side flashing the Four Horsemen four-fingered salute. This will go down in wrestling history as a truly significant moment. They had arrived.
The Four Horsewomen (from left to right: Charlotte, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch)
From there, Bayley and Sasha would go on to main-event the next NXT event, not only being the first women to close-out a large show, but they were also the first women to ever compete in an Iron Man match. The Iron Man match is a match-type tailor made to let wrestlers show off their technical skills. Running for 30 minutes, the wrestler with the most pinfalls and/or submissions by the end of the time limit would be declared the winner. Just the thought of having a women’s match take 30 minutes is mindboggling. Even most men’s wrestling matches take around 20 minutes at the most. Only the biggest matches take as long as 30 minutes, and even that’s rare.
Fast forward to this spring, and you now have a situation where Bayley faced one of the most legendary female wrestlers of all time in a brutal championship match. Asuka, under the ring-name Kana, was famous in her home country of Japan for her stiff wrestling style, using kicks and submission holds that looked legit. The fact that WWE would even consider bringing her to wrestle on their brand, not to mention the fact that she is already 34 years old, is a sign of how much the landscape has changed when it comes to women’s wrestling. And on the biggest stage of them all, Wrestlemania, in front of a crowd of 80,000, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte squared off in a triple-threat (3 way) match for the Championship as one of the main events of the night.
It used to be that WWE might throw in a 5vs5 throwaway match featuring all the women that would go on for maybe 5 minutes and would serve as a buffer before the main event of Wrestlemania. Now, arguably, these 3 women ARE the main event of Wrestlemania. Best of all, there was a special surprise reserved for this event. As announced during the pre-show by the aforementioned legendary female wrestler, Lita, the winner of the triple-threat match at Wrestlemania 32 would be crowned the first WWE Women’s Champion. The Divas’ Championship was to finally be retired because, as Lita pointed out, these new women wrestlers are much more than divas. They, like the men, are superstars. This alone speaks volumes, but I think that one of the coolest aspects of all of this is that the design of the WWE Women’s Championship looks incredibly similar to the most prestigious title in the business, the WWE Heavyweight Championship. Never before has a women’s championship looked almost exactly the same as the men’s heavyweight championship. This new design, if nothing else, is a visual indicator that they should be considered equals.
Women’s wrestling has gone through its ups and downs, with a lot of progress still left to be made. However, this is perhaps the first time in wrestling history where it seems that women’s wrestling is thoroughly on its way up, without a single bump downwards on the horizon. These female performers are legitimate wrestlers. Every fan, ranging from 8 year old girls to middle aged men, is firmly invested in these women. They cheer their good deeds, and boo their cheating ways. They sit on the edge of their seats as a match seems to be nearing its end. They jump up to their feet at the emergence of a victor. They know that what they’re watching isn’t a “divas” match. It’s a wrestling match with the best female wrestlers from around the world. The bathroom break will have to wait.
The WWE Heavyweight Championship (left) & The WWE Women’s Championship (right)